Joan of Arc
France’s national heroine Joan of Arc, also known as the Maid of Orleans (1412 – 1431), is perhaps the world’s most famous female warrior of all time. As a teenage girl, she led French armies to victory against rampaging English invaders during the Hundred Years War. Fighting at the head of her forces, she won a series of miraculous victories that revived French national spirit, and turned the tide of the war.
Born into a peasant family in Lorraine, Joan was noted for her piety since childhood. As a teenager, she began seeing visions from a variety of saints, directing her to save France from English domination. At the time, France was exhausted, downtrodden and reeling from a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of the English. The French crown was also in dispute between the French Dauphin, or heir to throne, and the English king, Henry IV.
At age 16, Joan left home, and led by voices and visions from the saints, traveled to join the Dauphin. In 1429, she convinced the French heir to give her an army, which she took to relieve French forces besieged by the English at Orleans. Endowed with remarkable mental and physical courage, Joan led her men in a whirlwind campaign that lifted the siege in 9 days, and sent the English fleeing. In so doing, she won a momentous victory that repulsed an English attempt to conquer France.
After the victory at Orleans, Joan of Arc convinced the Dauphin to crown himself king of France, which he reluctantly did. She was then sent on a variety of military expeditions, and in one of them in 1430, she was thrown off her horse and captured by Burgundians. Her captors kept her for several months, while negotiating with the English, who were eager to get their hands on the girl who had caused them so much trouble.
Eventually, Joan was sold to the English, and although she had saved her country, she was now abandoned by her countrymen to fend for herself. The English and their French collaborators accused her of heresy and witchcraft and locked her in a dark and filthy cell pending her trial. Manacled to her bed with chains, she was incessantly harassed by her inquisitors at all hours of day and night in an effort to break her will and spirit. She adamantly refused to confess to wrongdoing, and her accusers were unable to prove either heresy or witchcraft. In frustration, they turned their attention to the way in which she had dressed in male attire on the field of battle. Claiming that such cross-dressing violated biblical injunctions, they convicted her. On May 30th, 1431, she was taken on a cart to her site of execution in Rouen, where the 19-year-old Maid of Orleans burned to death.
Two decades after her death, an inquisitorial court was ordered by a new Pope, to reexamine Joan of Arc’s trial. The new court debunked all the charges against her, cleared her posthumously, and declared her a martyr. In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte made her a national symbol of France. Five centuries later, she was beatified in 1909, then canonized as a Saint by the Catholic Church in 1920. Today, Saint Joan of Arc is one of the patron saints of France, and perhaps the most famous female warrior of all time.